Frank Tassone was the closest thing to a rock star you’ll ever see in the field of school administration.
As the superintendent for New York’s Roslyn School District in the 1990s and early 2000s, Tassone was a commanding, charismatic figure who always wore spiffy suits, tooled about in a Mercedes, knew the names of nearly every teacher and parent and student, and basked in the adoration of the community. They worshipped Tassone because he spearheaded the district’s ascent to become one of the top public school systems in the country — which led to meteoric rises in property values as families flocked to the area so their kids could get the kind of education that leads to admission to Ivy League schools
Only a few problems. As budget requests soared, school structures remained in disrepair. The roof leaked — in multiple places. Some of the contracting firms billing the district for hundreds of thousands of dollars seemed … shady. And while Frank played the part of the grieving widower, talked lovingly of his deceased wife and kept their wedding photo in his office, he was actually living a double life.
Wait. Make that a triple life.
The surreal story of the Roslyn school district embezzlement scandal caused a media sensation nearly 20 years ago, and it’s now the focus of “Bad Education,” a darkly funny and cleverly conceived HBO original movie debuting Saturday. Based on a screenplay by Mike Makowsky (a Roslyn middle school student in the mid-2000s) and directed with a keen attention to detail and pacing by Cory Finley, this is a stylized take on real-life events, in the vein of “American Hustle” and “The Big Short” and “I, Tonya.” You don’t know whether to laugh or shake your head at the outrageous antics of Tassone and others, and even though you know the basic framework of the story is based on solid truth, some of the more audacious acts of corruption are still hard to believe.
Hugh Jackman has long been one of our most versatile actors, and he adds a sparkling entry to his resume with his performance as the preening, charming, narcissistic Tassone, who for all his faults and double-dealings seems to have a real talent for inspiring teachers and students to new heights, and a genuine connection with educators and children alike. When a worried parent shows up at the office with her son, who appears to be on the spectrum and is falling behind his classmates, Tassone connects with the boy in a sincere and effective fashion. Boy he’s good.
Allison Janney turns in Emmy-level work as Tassone’s second-in-command, one Pam Gluckin, who’s like walking sandpaper compared to Tassone’s silky smooth style. Gluckin can cut you to ribbons with her blunt, Long Island-accented speaking style, and she really doesn’t give a bleep what anyone but Tassone thinks about her. She’s fiercely loyal to the boss and winces in sympathy for the guy as he downs charcoal-infused drinks for his health. (Every time Tassone takes a sip and winces, it’s as if he’s ingesting his own toxic corruption.)
Overcoming an intrusive and unnecessarily cutesy score, “Bad Education” lays out the seriocomic events in entertaining fashion. Tassone takes the Concorde on an overseas trip, jets off to Vegas, runs up dry cleaning bills on his tailored suits and even gets a little nip-tuck plastic surgery to keep his appearance fresh. Gluckin hosts parties at her lavish waterfront home in the Hamptons. Nobody seems to care or question how these two can be enjoying such extravagant lifestyles on glorified teachers’ salaries. Nobody questions why the roof keeps leaking despite all those huge budget requests for repairs. Nobody asks why a contractor billing the district for hundreds of thousands a year has a listed address that’s actually a posh apartment on the Upper East Side. What really matters is the Roslyn school district is ranked fourth in the entire nation.
Things start to unravel when Gluckin puts her idiot son in charge of remodeling her home, and he runs up enormous bills at home improvement stores while using a school district credit card. Meanwhile, an industrious student journalist (Geraldine Viswanathan) is pounding the pavement and diving deep into public receipts and records indicating a clear pattern of corruption. (In real life, it was indeed a scoop in the school’s own student paper that led the big media to the Roslyn story.)
Ray Romano turns in another stellar post-sitcom performance as the school board president, who can’t get a handle on the breathtaking scope of the corruption that happened under his watch and makes all the wrong moves in trying to stem the tide. Still, we share his frustration with Tassone, who to the very end has a way of turning things around and making it seem like he’s the real victim. Jackman does a magnificent job of portraying a man who has been lying so long on so many fronts, even he isn’t sure of the truth any longer.